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Coal mining is a dangerous job. In Afghanistan, kids often do much of the work

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

While world leaders have been talking about limiting global warming at the U.N. climate summit, Afghanistan has been moving in another direction and ramping up its production of coal. Mining for that coal is dangerous and sometimes deadly. And as NPR's Arezou Rezvani reports, in Afghanistan, kids often do much of the work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: You don't have to travel too far outside of Kabul to see signs that coal is king in Afghanistan's economy these days.

So we left Kabul just a couple of hours ago. We're about to make our way through the Hindu Kush mountains on these backbreaking roads built to buy the Soviets years ago. And already we're passing truck after truck after truck, all of them full of coal. Some are carrying so much, it's just spilling over the sides. When the old Afghan government collapsed last year, its economy collapsed with it. Foreign governments withdrew billions of dollars in economic assistance when the Taliban returned to power. Now, after a year of isolation, the cash-strapped Taliban government is increasing its coal production and exports to fill the void. And those bringing that coal to market aren't who you'd expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON GRAVEL)

REZVANI: We've driven through mountains, through riverbeds, and we're now walking this final stretch to get to the coal mines. And headed in the other direction, headed down the mountain are a lot of miners with coal dust all over them. And some of these faces we see are quite young.

It's not uncommon to see children work hard jobs in poor countries - in factories, farms or food stalls. But the scene atop this mountain is still astonishing. Inside a narrow tunnel, the distant, faint glow of headlamps appears first.

FAZEL: Be careful here.

REZVANI: OK.

As we go deeper, the young faces come into focus.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Dari).

REZVANI: Older boys are swinging pickaxes, digging for coal. Some are busy fixing wood beams for the crumbling tunnel walls.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD BEING SANDED)

REZVANI: The younger boys escort coal-laden donkeys out of the mines. Among them is 12-year-old Mansour. When he emerges from this mountain's womb, the boys outside greet him with a tune from a toy flute. They take turns playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE)

REZVANI: It's a humble celebration for making it out alive, they say.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE)

REZVANI: Like everyone here, little Mansour wears no helmet, no goggles, just a pair of cheap rubber shoes he sliced open to air out his little black toes peeking out.

MANSOUR: (Speaking Dari).

REZVANI: "My workday starts at dawn," he tells me. He shepherds donkeys up and down this mountain for 10 hours a day.

MANSOUR: (Speaking Dari).

REZVANI: "The work's not hard," he says, but he looks bone tired. His delicate hands are black and calloused.

ABDUL: (Speaking Dari).

REZVANI: Much of the coal Mansour takes down is carried out of the earth by older boys, like Abdul Salaam. He's 17 and already a veteran of these lands.

ABDUL: (Through interpreter) I've been working here most of my life. I started working in these mines when I was 9.

REZVANI: The child labor that existed under the old government has grown worse in the last year. The Taliban government wants to fix that. But with an economy in shambles, more families are sending younger kids here, says Jawad Jahed, the engineer who oversees this mine for the government.

JAWAD JAHED: (Through interpreter) Kids under 18 aren't supposed to work here. But our people are so poor, families have no choice. They send their children to work because they need the money. And it's hard for us to turn them away.

REZVANI: The boys earn a few dollars for a day's work. It's a strong, steady wage in these cruel economic times, even if it comes at great risk. Heavy rains last winter caused one of the tunnels here to collapse. A dozen workers were killed. When I asked 17-year-old Salaam if he's worried about getting hurt, he shrugs.

ABDUL: (Through interpreter) It is the work of destiny. If it is my destiny to die in these mines, then so be it.

REZVANI: But that destiny may already be taking shape. As the sun sets, we head back down the mountain. A few young miners are sitting on a ledge overlooking this vast, blackened landscape. One of them pulls out the flute.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE)

REZVANI: He plays it for a few seconds. Then he stops.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Dari).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Speaking Dari).

REZVANI: "Carry on," the other boys say. But he can't.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: (Speaking Dari).

REZVANI: After a long day at the mines, he doesn't have the breath to go on.

Arezou Rezvani, NPR News, Nahrin, Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARIPRASAD CHAURASIA'S "RAAG BHUPALI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.